Game week is finally here and with it we attack just how this Oklahoma football team can leave Jerry World with a victory over their one time conference foes, the Texas A&M Aggies. Oklahoma fans have to love coming in as the underdog as well as the whirlwind publicity tour A&M's Heisman Trophy winning quarterback has been on with the hopes that Johnny Manziel comes into this game distracted, unprepared, overconfident, and/or all of the above.
For all the hype bestowed upon this Texas A&M team, this is an Oklahoma squad that matches up very well at a number of different spots. We'll attempt to detail for you what some of those areas might be, as well as where Oklahoma could be at a disadvantage.
We'll examine both sides of the ball as well as a possible recent development that could add a bit of a unique twist for this game with respect to how Oklahoma may try and defend Manziel.
OU offense vs. A&M defense
Not to go all 'advanced metrics' on you, but just for the sake of full disclosure here is where Texas A&M ranks defensively from a statistical standpoint (via cfbstats.com). Rushing Defense (38th), Pass Defense (80th), and Total Defense (58th). Now some may look at that, plainly on its surface, and presume that Oklahoma will struggle to run the ball against this Aggie defense. Others may look at those rankings and recognize that the A&M defense may be where it is against the run as a direct result of how poorly they defend the pass. See, stats are funny like that.
As for what to expect, few who are sane, rational fans (i.e. the non-Aggies among us) expect Oklahoma to struggle throwing the ball. The Texas A&M secondary is vulnerable, but to be fair the Oklahoma wide receiving unit would expose the weaknesses of any defensive secondary. While the Aggies are very quick to point out the Sooners will be facing a player in Johnny Manziel the likes of which they've yet to face all season, the exact same can be said with respect to OU's wide receivers going up against this A&M defense.
It would seem the only thing preventing Landry Jones and company from having a big day would be Oklahoma's ability to keep Jones upright. Texas A&M is 30th in the country with 30 total sacks on the season (for comparison sake, OU is 66th with 24) and are very clearly led in that department by Damontre Moore and his 12.5 sacks on the season (tied for the second most nationally). The upside here however is that the Oklahoma offensive line has been exceptional all year when it comes to protecting Landry Jones.
While Moore presents a threat, and a significant one at that, is he really any more of one than Texas' Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat? Or TCU's Devonte Fields? All of whom are players Oklahoma has faced earlier this season and borderline dominated to the point of irrelevancy. What reason is there to believe, after 12 games of prior experience, that Lane Johnson won't have a similar level of success against Moore?
Understand, that is not meant to imply that we, as OU fans, can simply assume Moore is going to be a non-factor in this game. Rather that where in most games Texas A&M has a significant defensive advantage thanks to Moore's pass rushing ability, said advantage should be (at least) somewhat negated as a result of Oklahoma's exceptional ability to protect the passer.
But we know what Oklahoma has in the pass game. What is intriguing about his game, from an OU offensive standpoint, is how Josh Heupel will choose to use his running backs. Of course, that is based on the assumption Heupel involves them at all which, as many of you know, hasn't always been the case at times this year.
I'm not at all optimistic about the chances of it happening, but I think this OU offense would be much better served attacking the A&M defense on the edges, with off-tackle runs, rather than straight up the middle. I just think that's where the big plays on the ground are going to be in this game. Why not stretch A&M out, very similar to how they attack opponents offensively, with three and four receiver sets and see if their defensive line is capable of getting to a Damien Williams or Brennan Clay before they can hit the second level.
One would think the run game would be one of Oklahoma's best friends in a game like this, controlling the clock and keeping Manziel and the A&M offense on the sideline. However, as we've seen in the past Heupel tends to go against the norm in that respect with his love of the forward pass far outweighing his desire to run the ball.
A healthy Damien Williams should be able to run the ball between the tackles (and we all know how much Heupel loves those run calls) against this Texas A&M defense. If it's not Williams, it's likely to be Brennan Clay who ran with a purpose and determination the latter half of this season that had OU fans extremely excited. The primary deterrents against the run for the Aggies will be defensive tackle Spencer Nealy as well as linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Nealy is really active on the inside and impressed me in every A&M game I watched this year. He's not overly large, at a biscuit or two under 300 pounds, but he is one of those high motor guys who never quits on a play. Stewart and Porter aren't overly dynamic linebackers per se, but very solid and sure tacklers who aren't out of position very often.
The X-factor in all of this for Oklahoma, as he is in every game, is Trey Millard. As all OU fans are painfully aware, the only thing ever holding him back from playing a much, much larger role in the outcome of games is the Oklahoma coaches decision to use him, or more often than not sadly, to not use him. Millard is a threat to any defense given his rare level of athleticism as a fullback and his versatility, giving Oklahoma the ability to line him up at a number of different positions. This of course allows the OU offense to vary their formations without having to substitute and thus staying in that hurry-up offense.
If I'm Oklahoma... I think it's pretty reasonable to presume that Texas A&M will expect the Sooners to pass in order to set up the run. It's certainly what Oklahoma has done for most of this season and for the most part, it has worked. For that reason, I think you come out and look to establish the run, but don't do so at your own expense. What I mean by that is use what is very likely to be an aggressive A&M defense early on to your advantage. Run some draw plays, maybe some misdirection, get Millard involved early. Give them something else to think about defensively and see if you can't get their linebackers/safeties to cheat up just that little bit that Landry and these OU wide receivers will need to get behind them. In the pass game, simply take what they give you. From what I've seen, A&M plays a pretty soft coverage more often than not, so if they give you those short, quick five yard stop routes just take it. They'll either start to come up or OU will continue to move the chains. Continue to use those three and four wide receiver sets and if A&M stays in their base defense, Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard matched up on linebackers should be Landry's first read just about every time.
OU defense vs. A&M offense
Look, nobody here is foolish enough to believe that Oklahoma is going to shutdown Johnny Manziel. It's not about shutting him down so much as it is containing him, which of course is much easier said than done. The goal, in a perfect world, would be to force him to stay in the pocket while getting enough pressure (without out creating escape lanes) to not leave your secondary out to dry in asking them to cover for an extended period of time. That's the best case scenario and even then with a player of Manziel's abilities, the guy is still going to make plays.
So how do you go about accomplishing these things?
At the time of this post, there are some rumblings that Mike Stoops has been experimenting some with his scheme and/or approach to this game as to how to best defend Manziel. The rumors are that Oklahoma could, at least at times, employ a 5-2 front seven formation, somewhat reminiscent to the 50-front defense Brent Venables employed a couple years back. The theory here being that the extra defensive lineman would have a multi-pronged effect. (1) An extra body up front to muck up run lanes for both Manziel and the A&M running backs. (2) Said extra body would ideally help provide additional pass rush. (3) The five down linemen would work together as a unit to contain Manziel within the pocket.
This theory was somewhat validated when OU senior David King told writers, during Sunday's Cotton Bowl media day, that he had been working inside at defensive tackle in practices, even prior to the situation with Stacy McGee. While this isn't a new development given that King has played inside at various times this season, it does lend credence to the idea that OU could employ this five man defensive line.
The amateur 'Paint' skills aside, here is how I think this formation would most likely look.
There are some variations of course with respect to the personnel, but that is probably pretty close to what you should expect to see if in fact Oklahoma were to employ that type of defensive formation.
The only real fly in this ointment of a five man defensive line would be Oklahoma's defensive ends. Neither R.J. Washington, Chuka Ndulue, or Geneo Grissom are ideal for what the defensive ends would be asked to do in this kind of a formation. Typically, at least one would have to drop into coverage at times and none of those guys would be players you want covering out in space. Additonally, it is absolutely vital that your ends, in their pass rush, do not get too far up the field thus creating escape lanes for Manziel, which has always been an issue for Washington in the past.
If, and I stress if, Oklahoma were to employ this kind of formation the ideal players, at least given their current roster, at defensive end would probably be Rashod Favors and P.L. Lindley. They're undersized to be every down defensive ends, but for this one game and for what they'd be asked to do they are quick enough (or at least quicker than those other three guys) to drop if needed. The biggest negative there is that against a pair of future NFL offensive tackles, the odds of them giving you much in pass rush are not all that high. Of course, given the production we've seen from the OU defensive ends all season those odds probably weren't all that high to begin with.
Regardless of what happens up front defensively, what few if any can argue (at least in my opinion) is that Frank Shannon has to be on the field at middle linebacker. There is a pretty compelling argument to be made in fact that, at least from an Oklahoma perspective, Shannon could be the single most important player in this game.
I think the first inclination for a lot of OU fans is to have Shannon 'spy' on Johnny Manziel. But that's never been something either Stoops brother has been all that fond of in the past and it's not as if they'd be the first team to try it this season where the success of doing so can most easily be found in that Heisman Trophy.
I'm sure there is a role for Tom Wort in this game in which he can be successful, but I simply cannot imagine how that role is as the starting middle linebacker. And whether you believe it or not, that is not meant as a slight to Wort. Rather, it's simply the reality of the situation in that he does not match up well with respect to this Texas A&M offense. Oklahoma needs Shannon's speed and athleticism to counter with the threat that Manziel presents as a scrambler.
The obvious risk is that Shannon is still somewhat of an inexperienced player so he could be prone to over committing on some plays and find himself out of position. Both of which are things Manziel very rarely misses an opportunity to capitalize on. That said, whatever risks there may be with putting Shannon out there are risks that have to be taken in this game.
Another guy who could play a big role in this game is Corey Nelson, also formerly known as 'Mr. A&M' prior to his decommitment from the Aggies and signing day switch to OU. Nelson is another quick, athletic linebacker who should expect to see a lot of playing time in this game. He, like a lot of the Oklahoma linebackers, seemed to struggle at times this season with the change in what the coaches asked their linebackers to do. He's a guy that excels in space, using his athleticism to makes plays all over the field. He may just get the chance to do exactly that in this game.
What tends to get lost in all of the Johnny Manziel hoopla is the fact that Texas A&M has a quality stable of running backs. And perhaps more to the point, all of the things that Manziel is capable of only increases the effectiveness of Christine Michael, Ben Malena, and Trey Williams. Only further adding to that fact is the quality offensive line in front of them opening up lanes for any one of them to run through.
Michael is the guy who will get the tough yards for them, while Malena and Williams (especially) are more of the home run threats. All three present a receiving threat out of the backfield as well, although Malena and Williams are the most likely of the group to contribute in the pass game.
My point being, don't sleep on this Texas A&M rushing attack. They are more than capable of lining up and running the ball down Oklahoma's throat. It may not be from your 'typical' run formations, but if they want to run the ball they certainly have the personnel to do so and it's not something they always get the credit for that they deserve.
With respect to Oklahoma's secondary, this is a match-up where on paper the Sooners would appear to have the advantage. OU's defensive backs have been exceptional all year, even more so when you consider how much as been asked of them. All that said however, it's not quite as black-and-white as it might appear.
While Oklahoma fans have the utmost confidence in Demontre Hurst and Aaron Colvin, and for good reason, neither have faced a receiver like Texas A&M's Mike Evans this season. Evans could very well be the most physical receiver in all of college football and he uses his 6'5" 218 pound frame incredibly well. In every A&M game I've seen this season, the guy just flat-out physically abuses opposing corners. While outstanding cover guys, arguably one of the best duos in the country in fact, neither Hurst nor Colvin are particularly big guys so Evans, with his size, presents a considerable match-up problem for them.
The other primary threat at receiver for Texas A&M is Ryan Swope who apparently petitioned the NCAA for a 15th year of eligibility prior to the Aggies move to the SEC. In a vacuum, Swope is a guy either Colvin or Hurst would match-up very well with. However, as many of us know Swope operates primarily out of the slot which presents an issue for this Oklahoma defense because they very rarely move a corner inside to cover slot receivers. Instead, they will typically use a linebacker (barf) or a nickelback either of which Swope will have the advantage against in this game. Assuming Oklahoma does not defy their long established history, Julian Wilson is the most likely candidate to draw the assignment of covering Swope.
The other very important factor here is the type of coverage Mike Stoops will attempt to use. For a majority of the season, Stoops has employed a strict man-to-man coverage scheme and shown little desire to stray from it. Even when it has been to the detriment of the defense in games like the one against West Virginia or Baylor or Oklahoma State. All three of whom do not have quarterbacks anywhere close to the level of threat Manziel presents with his legs, yet all of whom repeatedly gashed this Oklahoma defense on the ground for chunks of yards at a time.
For that reason alone, Stoops needs to introduce some zone coverages for this game rather than just straight man-to-man. Which almost seems crazy to say as I and many OU fans were pulling our hair out at times, begging Brent Venables to swtich from zone to man and now we finally have that. But against a player like Manziel, staying in man coverage just creates too many opportunities for him to hurt you.
The primary difference between the two coverages, at least for the sake of simplicity, being it's much easier to get a defender to vacate his space on the field in man coverage than it is when a defense is playing a zone. Whether it's through pre-snap motion, crossing routes, "pick/rub" plays, or any other various means, removing defenders to create space for Manziel in the run game will be much easier against a man-to-man defense.
The need to play zone only further increases if Oklahoma does in fact employ that five man defensive line. If you have defensive linemen dropping into coverage, do you want them having to run with a guy all the way across the field or simply responsible for anyone that comes into their area of assignment? They're not likely to be successful with the former, not to mention it accomplishes (vacating their space on the field) exactly what, as a defense, you do not want to happen.
Oklahoma's corners will also need to play up close to the line of scrimmage. A&M's offense is designed primarily around shorter, quick routes that allow Manziel to get rid of the ball in a hurry and give his receivers an opportunity to make plays after the catch. They've shown that, as we were describing above with OU's offense, they'll take the short stuff all day long if you allow them to have it. Maybe you get beat over the top on occasion, even though Manziel doesn't throw a particularly great deep ball, and you have to adjust your approach, but it's makes much more sense to start up close then back off if need be as opposed to vice versa.
If I'm Oklahoma... While the idea of the 50-front and/or five man defensive line very much intrigues me, I'm just not sure Oklahoma has the horses to run it the entire game. Of course, that may not be the game plan regardless. So, with that in mind, I think it's something you work in at times in an effort to mix things up and attempt to confuse Manziel. I say 'attempt to confuse' because even as a redshirt freshman, very few defenses have really confused the Heisman winner this season. It's more about mixing up your looks and bringing pressure from different spots of the field. Whether it's five, four, or three down lineman, expect Stoops to vary his looks quite a bit in this game. Manziel is a guy who throws well on the run, but that's a very different thing than throwing under pressure. Which probably sounds like a Captain Obvious statement to make, but there is an important distinction between the two. Manziel does not have a very strong arm and has proved (at times) to make poor decisions with the ball when throwing under duress. Blitzing is going to play a major factor in this game and Oklahoma is going to have to do a lot of it in my opinion. They've struggled to get pressure all year with just their front four and against this A&M offensive line that's not going to suddenly change. Blitzing will leave this OU defense vulnerable for some big plays, but it's a chance you simply have to take. As I said above, Mike Stoops has been resistant to do so this year but he simply has to employ some zone coverages in this game. One would hope, after the final several weeks worth of game tape from the regular season, that he isn't stubborn enough to continue to do something that has proved to be unsuccessful.